An Uncommon Ally for Science

By Elaine Sedenberg, AMerican Progress, August 2, 2011

The Fourteenth Incarnation of the Living Buddha Teaches That Spirituality v. Science Isn’t an Either/or Question

Washington D.C., USA -- Globally renowned as an advocate for a peaceful coexistence between China and Tibet, the Dalai Lama is perhaps less well known for his advocacy for a different kind of peaceful coexistence: that between science and spirituality.

The Dalai Lama is a rare religious leader whose public zeal for science, research, and education serves as a positive example of the compatibility of science and spirituality.

This enthusiasm for science research was apparent at His Holiness’s July 9 talk for world peace on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington D.C. Referencing scientific studies about the effects of selfishness on heart disease, and of negative emotions on the immune system more broadly, the Dalai Lama used scientific evidence to support his artful advocacy for universal compassion and world peace.

Far from shunning science as a threat that disproves religious belief, the Dalai Lama has advocated for years that science and religion can be mutually enriching. Writing in 2003, the Dalai Lama said:

“Though Tibetans have valuable knowledge about the internal world, we have been materially backward partly because of a lack of scientific knowledge. Buddhist teachings stress the importance of understanding reality. Therefore, we should pay attention to what modern scientists have actually found through experiment and through measurement the things they have proved to be reality.”

Departing from his usual spiritual writings, the Dalai Lama even published a book about science and spirituality in 2006. The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality discusses how science and religion can each promote the betterment of the other. On the one hand, since science can be used for either good or ill, it can benefit from religion’s ability help navigate the ethical space between. On the other, religion can avoid rigid fundamentalism by paying attention to advancing science. Together, he argues, they make a powerful combination that can help us better understand central questions of our humanity.

In the past, he’s used his spiritual authority to urge his followers to participate directly in scientific studies. Scientists had had little success studying the effects of meditation on the brain until the Dalai Lama dispatched monks experienced enough to meditate amidst the noise of an fMRI machine to participate in neuroscience studies abroad. The real-time images these studies provided have helped scientists better understand the actual ways that meditation influences brain activity. Another set of studies on the long-term effects of meditation has also showed a positive connection between the practice of meditation and brain tissue thickness.

In addition to using his spiritual authority to further science, the Dalai Lama has also exercised his political leadership to advocate for science education in society more broadly. He addressed the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting to champion a new cause: How moral leaders should work openly with scientists in order to keep up with the rapid progress of technical knowledge. As science speeds along gathering data behind common spiritually linked questions, the Dalai Lama asserts that religion should begin participating in the developing dialog.

“Today the question of science’s interface with wider humanity is no longer a matter of academic interest alone; this question must assume a sense of urgency for all those who are concerned about the fate of human existence. I feel, therefore, that a dialog between neuroscience and society could have profound benefits in that it may help deepen our basic understanding of what it means to be human.”

– Excerpt from article based on Society for Neuroscience talk.

The Dalai Lama’s enthusiastic embrace of interdisciplinary research has brought him in contact with tutors including quantum mechanics experts Carl von Weizsacker and David Bohm along with neuroscientists Robert Livingston and Francisco Varela. Imagine what benefits the United States would see in science policy if more of our political and religious leaders fostered such close educational mentorships with scientists.

Not only can meditation and spirituality aid our scientific understanding of human psychology, but science can augment the learning of the spiritual, according to the Dalai Lama. Since 2006 the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative has sent Tibetan monks to Emory University to take core science classes so that they can return to their monasteries in India and teach the basics to fellow monks and nuns. The partnership has also resulted in ongoing dialogue and collaboration between Tibetan monks and Emory science faculty, and has resulted in the translation of six science textbooks into Tibetan for the first time. Simple as it seems, the translation of science and mathematical teachings into Tibetan has brought down learning barriers between religion and science that have existed for centuries.

Images of a tranquil Buddha sitting placidly among nature couldn’t be more starkly juxtaposed with white lab coats practicing rigid sterile technique. But according to the Dalai Lama, these two fields - which evolved from, separate historical, intellectual and cultural roots - have grown to share basic philosophical methodologies. Both modern science and Buddhism share a deep suspicion of absolute notions and support ideas that organisms and the universe emerged as part of an evolutionary process.

Science continually renews itself by encouraging the questioning and correction of long-standing beliefs. Buddhism, he points out, does the same through a glorification of the investigation of reality that triumphs over even the most deeply venerated spiritual authority.

The Dalai Lama’s open-minded attitude toward science should serve as an example not just for other political leaders, but for people of faith everywhere. Religious studies are increasingly enriched by contemporary findings in science while technological progress continues to lead us toward unavoidable ethical questions. Science and religion therefore shouldn’t be seen as opposing forces, but rather the two-colored lenses of the 3-D glasses of reality. We need them both to see the full picture.

Elaine Sedenberg is a Science Policy Contract researcher at the Center for American Progress.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: